As concerns rise about increasing the domestic use of drones for surveillance or commercial purposes, risking terrorism, accidents due to inclement weather and mid-air collisions, the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), an independent think tank engaged in defence and security research, reports on the growing use of drone ‘swarms’ in the Middle East.
Alexander Balas (RUSI) cites indicators such as the recent UAV strikes against Saudi infrastructure and the shooting down of a US drone in the Persian Gulf region.
When the US developed the Predator unmanned aerial vehicle in the 1990s, multilateral arms control agreements, such as the Missile Treaty Control Regime, adopted drone-related measures similar to those proved effective during the Cold War: particularly export controls covering UAVs and their components which 35 member states agreed to implement nationally.
RUSI reports that Israel was previously a high-end global supplier and leader in UAV technology innovation, the US severely restricted foreign sales and the quickly growing supply of Chinese multi-role strike capable UAVs has since transformed regional UAV numbers and capabilities.
But the New York, Carnegie-funded China Power Project points out that in terms of total UAV sales, China lags behind the US which has sold 351 drones to partners around the world since 2008, followed by Israel’s 186 UAV exports.
The first recorded swarm drone attack in 2018 was only one of the recent instances which have marked the ‘breakout’ of UAVs which only a few years ago had been the preserve of just three states: the US, Israel and the UK. But Middle Eastern players such as Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS), Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party, Hizbullah and Hamas are emerging as key UAV operators.
A few examples since 2018 illustrate this:
- January 2018 – first recorded and tactically effective swarm drone attack, in Syria.
- March 2018 – Chinese-made UAV used to kill a key moderate prior to Yemen UN talks.
- Various UAV incursions into Israel and strikes on Iran’s Syrian drone infrastructure, following drone attacked thought to be Iranian-backed .
- Regional UAV forces operating from 2018 in support of different Libyan proxies.
- Up to May 2019 – Houthi UAV operations against diverse military and civilian targets.
The three retrieved drones involved in the first attack were described as homemade and quite rudimentary. but the GPS guidance system, improvised explosives and rockets appeared to be of advanced manufacture. Their estimated attack range was up to 100 km, far greater than most homemade and commercial off-the-shelf drones.
Technical features of Qasef-1, the drones used by the Houthis, were listed here in 2018. In January this year a video issued by the AP Archive (requires registration) noted that Iran – without offering evidence – has been accused by the US and the UN of supplying ballistic missile technology and arms to the Houthis. Tehran has denied the accusation, but a United Nations expert panel on Yemen issued a report in 2018 noting that the Houthi’s Qasef-1 drone “is virtually identical in design, dimensions and capability to that of the Ababil-T, manufactured by the Iran Aircraft Manufacturing Industries” which can deliver up to a 45-kilogram warhead up to 150 kilometres away.
The Middle East is described in the RUSI article as ‘the globe’s thriving lethal laboratory in which UAV technology (is being developed) in contravention of relevant arms control measures’ and searches reveal that the countries responsible for this proliferation, include USA, Russia, Iran, China and Israel.